Hamilton County eyes new control over grants

Hamilton County eyes new control over grants

October 16th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy and Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Deputy Tim Mann, Red Bank High School's resource officer, walks the halls during the student's lunch period.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County commissioners already have final say over which grants the county accepts. But after today, they may have the first word, too.

Commissioners are expected to vote today on a resolution that would require the county's 14 constitutional officers to seek commission approval before applying for grants that require county funds to match.

General government is exempt from the resolution. And grants that require no county match are also not included.

Commissioner Joe Graham, who first proposed the measure, said Tuesday the effort is just to keep commissioners in the loop and to be good stewards of public money.

But Sheriff Jim Hammond, one of the only constitutional officers who regularly seeks grants, said the move could hamstring his efforts to find extra funding.

"If we had to go before the commission for every grant request, no matter how small or large, it would make it very difficult for us to even bother with it," Hammond said.

Gary Hayes, county government consultant with the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, said if the measure is approved, Hamilton County would become the only one in the 12-county Southeast Tennessee region to have a double-approval system for grants.

He also said it was odd to single out constitutional officers.

"When you look at it out there, there aren't many grants out there for constitutional officers," he said.

Aside from court clerks and sheriff's offices, other fee offices don't seek grants, he said.

In fact, in 2012, the county spent nearly $102 million in federal and state grant funds that had been received -- not including more than $76 million that went to the Department of Education, according to the county's financial report. Information on the matching funds needed to secure that grant amount was not readily available.

Of the grant money spent in 2012, only $798,000 went to constitutional officers in the form of U.S. Department of Justice grants. That figure is down from $1.6 million in 2007.

Still, Hayes said he gets the effort.

"I can understand why they'd want to do it, because sometimes county commissioners get kind of blindsided by big matching requirements," Hayes said. "But oftentimes, I think you are better off having an open line of communication."

The measure also comes a few weeks before the commission will consider whether to accept a $1 million grant Hammond received from the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Service program to hire eight school additional resource officers. That would bring the SRO force to 28, including two supervisors, two Chattanooga police officers and two school system-funded officers.

The grant will pay for three years of salary and benefits for the new officers. But it requires the county to pay for a fourth year. Don Gorman, the sheriff's chief administrator, estimates the county will have to invest $466,333 in salary and benefits to meet the terms of the grant. That does not include several hundred thousand more for guns, equipment and patrol cars.

Hammond said expansion of the SRO program will improve safety at several school buildings in the 42,000-student system.

That price tag is well worth it, he said, as the need for more SROs is the top concern he hears from community members.

"You're basically getting a two-for-one on the price of the officer," he said.

Hammond said he originally went to the County Commission three years ago, before he first applied for the SRO grant. They didn't receive it that year, but tried again two more times until finally receiving the award this year. Aside from the SRO grant, which Hammond said was the department's largest in recent history, Hammond said grants for bulletproof vests, police vehicles and other materials help the department fill in gaps left by a tight budget.

"We barely make it with the budget we have each year," he said.

Graham said Tuesday the resolution wasn't tied to any particular office or grant request. And he said opening communication lines was exactly what he wants the resolution to do.

"This is just me ... trying to be a good steward of general government funds. We still have final approval. But why would you go through all that trouble to get approved for a grant if you don't know if the County Commission is going to approve it or not?" he said. "It's not to hinder anybody. It's just to bring the people who have final say into the loop at the beginning."

Graham also noted that Chattanooga has a similar practice when it comes to grant approval from the City Council. Chattanooga Assistant City Attorney Phillip Noblett said resolutions are required by the council before departments can seek matching grants.

"We just don't want to be obligated if we don't know about it," Graham said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.